How do you navigate the literature on talent? A google search with the term “talent development in sport” brings up “about” 1,420,000 results. These range from opinion pieces to academic articles. Everyone, it seems, has an opinion. And often it seems, the person who shouts loudest is the one who’s heard. This leads to a lot of popular wisdom and misinformation.

One of the difficulties I find is that everyone’s looking for clear, simple answers, but there aren’t any. So, when I present to coaches, they’re often disappointed, because I can’t definitively suggest “this is what you should do”. Coaches are at the coal-face, working under pressure to produce elite athletes, usually with limited resources. What should they do?

All I can suggest is that we do at least have some information on what underpins the performance of elite (and superelite) athletes, and there are common thoughts on what doesn’t work.

So, without further ado, here is a list of 10 key points and recommendations regarding “what we know” about talent development. For a more detailed view, our “Great British Medalists” article is free to download.

#1: Birthdate

The relative age effect (RAE) refers to a biased distribution of elite athletes’ birthdates, with an over-representation of those born at the beginning of any given competitive year (e.g. September in most Western societies) and an under- representation of those born at the end (e.g. August). RAEs exist but may not be robust across all sports.

Recommendation: Coaches should not make use of RAEs for talent selection or development purposes, but rather policy makers and coaches should focus on structuring the environment to limit the negative effect of relative age

#2: Genetics

It would appear no longer a case of whether there is a genetic component to sporting performance, but rather which genetic profiles make the greatest contribution. Genetics may influence and thus limit the development of performance. Performance cannot, however, be well-predicted from genetic factors. Caution should be urged for ethical and societal reasons when considering genetic selection methodologies.

Recommendation: Policy makers and coaches should consider the possibility of using genetic profiling to help athletes make more informed and appropriate decisions about sport type and discipline during their development years.

#3: Anthropometric and physiological factors

Anthropometric and physiological factors are important for performance. However, caution should be urged when using anthropometric and physiological tests for talent selection purposes with adolescents because of variation in biological maturation.

Recommendation: Coaches should make use of physiological testing to inform the training process, and make use of anthropometric profiling and physiological tests for both talent selection and development purposes, but policy makers and coaches should ensure that such action is accompanied by appropriate procedures to “re-capture” lost/missed late maturers.

#4: Psychological skills and motivational orientations

Psychological factors (e.g., motivation, confidence, perceived control, mental toughness, resilience, coping with adversity, resistance to ‘choking’, mental skills) appear to be important contributors to the development of superelite performance.

Recommendation: Coaches should make use of psychological profiling for talent development purposes.

#5: Personality traits

Superelite athletes are conscientious, optimistic, hopeful, and perfectionist.

Recommendation: Coaches should make use of personality profiling for talent development but not talent selection.

#6: Birthplace

Small-to-medium communities provide favorable environments for developing athletes. Talent hotspots may exist.

Recommendation: Policy makers and coaches should at least take consideration of birthplace when designing talent search initiatives as well as profiling athletes during talent selection and development.

#7: Support from parents, family, siblings, and coaches

Superelite athletes have benefitted from supportive families, coaches, and networks during their development. The subtleties of the provision of support are not well-understood.

Recommendation: Policy makers and coaches should heed the important influence of the support process during talent development

#8: Athlete support programs

The trajectory to superelite status is distinctly non-linear, involving repeated selection and de-selection, rather than linear progression within athlete support programmes. Early success is a poor predictor for later superelite success, and thus for early talent identification purposes. Superelite success is mostly preceded by relatively late entry into organized support programs.

Recommendation: Policy makers and coaches should appreciate that junior success does not contribute significantly to predicting long-term senior success, that early athlete support programmes are not the sole route to the development of talent, that support programmes be open for access at all age ranges, and thus that de-selected athletes be monitored for potential return.

#9: Volume of sport-specific practice and training

Superelite performance develops from extensive deliberate practice, but the applicability of the 10 years / 10,000 hours rule to high-performance sport is limited. Play may also be relevant, as may implicit/automatic and incidental skill learning.

Recommendation. Policy makers and coaches should continue to promote deliberate practice, but consider the present evidence before routinely increasing practice volumes with junior athletes, and acknowledge the potential benefits of automaticity, implicit learning, and also enjoyment in practice and play.

#10: Early specialization versus sampling and play

The key to reaching superelite level may be involvement in diverse sports during childhood and appreciable amounts of sport-specific practice/training in late adolescence and adulthood.

Recommendation: Policy makers and coaches should draw on this evidence, bearing in mind the need to minimize the potential hazards of early specialization when such specialization is necessary, and with regard to promoting opportunities for young athletes to experience non-organized play and sampling in a variety of sports.

And there we have it. What we know and think we know right now. This area is evolving and as new data come in, our ideas will be revised.

Here again is the link to the Great British Medalists paper. In it, you’ll see hints about an 11th point. But that’s for another day

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